28 February 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XV: House of Mystery: Conception

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2010-11)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2014
House of Mystery: Conception

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artists: Luca Rossi, Werther Dell'Edera, José Marzán, Jr.
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Brandon Graham, Trish Mulvihill
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Writers: Matt Wagner, Peter Milligan, Chris Roberson, Mike Carey
Short Story Artists: Marley Zarcone, Enrique Breccia, David Lloyd, Ulises Farinas, Gene Ha, Brandon Graham, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Michael Allred, Peter Gross, Stefano Landini
Short Story Colorists: Laura Allred, Daniel Vozzo
Short Story Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, Sal Cipriano

The title of this volume implies answers, but they're in short supply. Or rather, meaningful answers are. Or rather, I think I'd care if anything had ever made any sense-- finding out what the Conception are up to only really matters if previously we'd ever been given anything to grab onto beyond "They're so mysterious!" There is half-hearted attempt at a cast page this time, but it's too little, too late. Fig and Cain spend most of this volume getting from one side of a house to another. And for some reason, the House of Secrets is in the Goblin Market now, and Abel is trying to run a bar out of it. Why? Who knows. Allegedly these characters ran a bar together in the House of Mystery because they couldn't leave, but now they're out and giving it a try regardless.

Still: there's some good short stories here. "The Mystery of the Missing Ghost" is a pretty uninventive Encyclopedia Brown pastiche and "Murder Most Foul"'s joke is ruined by the fact that Enrique Breccia's renditions of the characters are unrecognizable, but "Great Artists Steal" is creepy in the way that an old-time House of Mystery story would be (making it quite appropriate that Cain tells this one himself), while "Bloodsucker" is yet another awesomely terrible film script, and "Necessary Evil" is a delightful piece of metafiction.

The best part of this volume, as in The Beauty of Decay, is the special Halloween issue in the back, which sees a group of strange trick-or-treaters visiting not just the House of Mystery (where Fig is dressed as Supergirl!), but also Madame Xanadu, John Constantine, the girl from iZombie, and (best of all) Lucifer and Gaudium! Whoo! Now there's a real treat. Bring back Gaudium.

26 February 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XIV: House of Mystery: Safe As Houses

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2014
House of Mystery: Safe As Houses

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artists: Luca Rossi, Werther Dell'Edera, José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Artists: Cristiano Cucina, Brendan McCarthy, Phil Noto, Esao Andrews, Carine Brancowitz

Like Under New Management, this book actually has its own discernible plot, which is a definite plus. I didn't always understand Fig's actions, and I think the return of the princess from "Familiar" in Room & Boredom is pretty random, but on the other hand, Tursig the gay goblin, who's pretty much just been a background bar patron up until this point, really comes into his own in this volume, and I also enjoyed the second look at Poet's origins, this time taking us to the Crimean War. I do think Cain is kind of squandered here-- why did Sturges bring him back if he's going to have so little to do with anything?

Overall, it's one of the better volumes. Things I loved: the explanation for why time travel in the DC universe is always a spiral with calendar pages going by, as seen in so many Legion of Super-Heroes tales; the short story "Long Strange Trip" by Matthew Sturges and Brendan McCarthy, where a Vietnam soldier becomes a sorcerer while tripping on LSD (best line: "I'm not enlightened-- I'm just tripping my ass off!" or "I learned the true names of stones and flowers and soybeans and hamsters and copper wires and jeeps and cups of coffee. It was a lot of fucking names." or the last one, which I won't spoil); Tursig's rendition of the classic goblin folk tale, "The Story about a Goblin Who Loved Babies and Also There Is a Hunter in It"; and the short story "Lotus Blossom's Theory of Names" by Matthew Sturges and Carrie Brancowitz, which is three pages of handwriting, but perfectly readable and has a foreseeable but still effective "twist."

24 February 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XIII: House of Mystery: Under New Management

Comic trade paperback, 127 pages
Published 2011 (contents: 2010)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2014
House of Mystery: Under New Management

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artists: Luca Rossi, José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Writers: Bill Willingham, David Justus, Paul Levitz, Alisa Kwitney
Short Story Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Farel Dalrymple, Sam Kieth, John Bolton

The beginning of this volume establishes the new status quo for House of Mystery: the House is continuing to serve as a bar, now located in the Stormfront Itinerant Bazaar (a.k.a. "Goblin Market"), and it's jointly managed by Cain, its caretaker of old, and Fig Keele. Now, quite why Cain and Fig can/are doing this is something I still don't get, but at least the what is a lot more comprehensible these days. Also, the addition of Cain to the main cast means the presence of Abel-- huzzah! (I always liked him more.)

This volume has a more discrete plot than previous ones: Fig's heretofore unknown brother Strawberry makes his way to the House. Heretofore unknown even to her. It's a good mix of clever and disturbing, and there are some interesting wrinkles in this plotline. We're also starting to get a glimpse of the scale of Fig's powers. Things move a bit too slowly as always, though.

The short stories are still good value for money: Sergio Aragonés returns to the series he helped define back in the 1970s, and how could you not like "Fig and Strawberry's Adventure in the Cloud Kingdom"? I was particularly charmed by Matthew Sturges and John Bolton's "Romantic Comedy (With Corpses)," an ironically-narrated indie romance film about vampires.

The best part of this book, though, is its final issue, a standalone called "Exquisite Corpse." The whole thing is illustrated by the inimitable Luca Rossi and José Marzán, Jr., but it's written in five different parts by five different writers-- Bill Willingham, Dave Justus, Paul Levitz, Alisa Kwitney, and Matthew Sturges-- in what I assume was the exquisite corpse style. It's funny and inventive and increasingly absurd, and includes some welcome cameos by old Dreaming favorites; one of the best parts of the series as a whole.

21 February 2014

Review: Victorian Empiricism by Peter Garratt

Hardcover, 244 pages
Published 2010

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2012
Victorian Empiricism: Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot
by Peter Garratt

Garratt analyzes a number of Victorian approaches to empiricism; I found his chapter on George Henry Lewes the most interesting, looking at the ways that all perception is ultimately inflected: your sensations will always interact with perception, and error and doubt are ultimately characteristic of the gaze. Each of the thinkers in the title receives a chapter of discussion except for Eliot, whose literary works are threaded throughout  (Adam Bede in the chapter on Ruskin, Middlemarch in Lewes's and Bain's, The Lifted Veil in Spencer's). I found his comments about Eliot's work the most illuminating part of the book.

19 February 2014

Review: Science on Stage by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Trade paperback, 271 pages
Published 2006

Acquired and read October 2012
Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen
by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

This book provides a scholarly overview of various and sundry plays that are about science or scientists. Rereading my notes, I wonder if these plays aren't so much about science per se as history; a lot of them are about historical scientists or historical events. I found the discussion of medicine-based plays the most interesting, particularly Shepherd-Barr's reading of Wit, which she argues is about a body being studied the same way literary scholars study text-- thus saying something interesting about the dehumanizing effects of that kind of gaze, on body and text alike. I think the book struggles to have a focused argument about a number of plays that don't really have much in common, but I enjoyed it, and I'd like to check out several of the one plays discussed that I haven't seen.

17 February 2014

Review: Lady Stardust edited by Art Critic Panda

Trade paperback, 112 pages
Published 2012

Acquired October 2012
Read June 2013
The Obverse Quarterly: Year Two, Book Two: Lady Stardust
edited by Art Critic Panda

I guess this Iris Wildthyme anthology is based on David Bowie or something; I wouldn't know. But who cares? This is one of the most fun, most diverse Iris Wildthyme anthologies yet. Vince Cosmos makes an appearance in Paul Magrs's "Hold onto Yourself," which is fun (where's the next audio drama, though?); Scott Liddell gives us a creepy and evocative story in "Slip Away"; and Stewart Sheargold's "Cracked Actor" is a deranged murder mystery on the set of an Italian vampire film. All good fun, without going over-the-top in an alienating way.

The only story I felt didn't work was George Mann's "Low/Profile," which purports to be the Wikipedia entry for a Bowie album, but ended up telling a pretty standard narrative; I don't think Mann really utilized the form well beyond the occasional "[citation needed]" or "[original research]" gag. Real Wikipedia entries aren't quite this coherent.

(I was disappointed at another Obverse title with sloppy typesetting; it seems to be a different size in each story, and sometimes fluctuates within one story. It makes this book look amateurish.)

14 February 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XII: House of Mystery: The Beauty of Decay

Comic trade paperback, 160 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009-10)
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2014
House of Mystery: The Beauty of Decay

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artists: Luca Rossi, Werther Dell'Edera, José Marzán, Jr., Andrew Pepoy, Joe Rubinstein
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Writers: Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Peter Milligan, Chris Roberson, Matt Wagner
Short Story Artists: Richard Corben, Al Davison, Jeff Lemire, Antonio Fuso, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Mark Buckingham, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Michael Allred, Amy Reeder Hadley, Kevin Nowlan, Stefano Landini, Richard Friend
Short Story Colorists: Dave McCaig, Laura Allred, Guy Major
Short Story Letterers: Sal Cipriano, Jared K. Fletcher

About a month (for me) passed between this and the previous volume of House of Mystery, and I was pretty confused. I can't imagine what it was like to read these collections as they came out! Sturges takes very little effort to remind us who the characters are, where they came from, what they want, or anything really. In this volume, the status quo changes a lot... but I hadn't even gotten used to the last one! Now the House is in an abandoned city or something? And there's ghosts? And the Administrator, the Conception, and Cain all have competing plans? And Fig's dad is still up to no good? But somehow Fig strikes a deal? I don't know; the metaplot here is vague and uninteresting. Either it can't be followed, or I just don't care to follow it.

A lot of good interspersed short stories, though: "The Hounds of Titus Roan" is pretty harrowing, while it's nice to get some background on poet. And, fantasically, the cockroach Brutus seen in his youthful prime two volumes back has already passed into legend and song:
"That was some story. Do you think it's true?"
"That there was a day weeks and weeks ago when garbage was scarce? Naw. That's just one of Grandpa's silly stories."
"Spellbound," about the dangers of reading, was probably my favorite: lush Michael Wm. Kaluta artwork.

The best part of this volume is the Halloween-themed story in the back, set at an earlier point in the series history, before the House was launched into the Space Between. Fig finds a creepy mask in the House, and we see the mask on many earlier Halloween nights: discarded by Merv Pumpkinhead in the Dreaming, ruining the life of John Constantine's friend, hiding a sadistic killer from a zombie, derailing the life of a child that Madame Xanadu must save. They're nice, creepy snippets of other series, other worlds, with good art and distinctive voices. If only the House of Mystery had maintained this fruitful status quo for longer.

Plus, you know, Merv-- still the third-best Sandman character.

12 February 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part XI: House of Mystery: The Space Between

Comic trade paperback, 121 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2009)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2013
House of Mystery: The Space Between

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artists: Luca Rossi, José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Writers: Bill Willingham, Chris Roberson
Short Story Artists: Jim Fern, Grazia Lobaccaro, Stefano Landini, Ralph Reese, Sergio Aragonés, Eric Powell, Neal Adams, Josh Adams, Gilbert Hernandez, David Hahn

In this volume, the House of Mystery ends up in the Space Between, and there's a dragon, and... well... I'm not really sure. Everyone talks a lot, but did the plot even advance? Only if adding more (meaningless) mysteries counts as advancement. The frame story grows a little frustrating in this volume, especially when characters in the bar pop up out of nowhere. (Maybe they were there before, but Sturges and Rossi didn't make them noticeable if so.) I do continue to like Rossi's art a lot-- simple lines, but very expressive, I think.

The best part of The Space Between is that it collects House of Mystery #13, containing three stories based on the number 13, spooky standalones with twist endings-- very much in the vein of the old House of Mystery comics of the 1960s and '70s. There's even a maze drawn by good old Sergio Aragonés!

10 February 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Part X: House of Mystery: Love Stories for Dead People

Comic trade paperback, 119 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2008-09)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2013
House of Mystery: Love Stories for Dead People

Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artist: Luca Rossi
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Short Story Writer: Bill Willingham
Short Story Artists: Tony Akins, Andrew Pepoy, David Petersen, Henry Flint, Bernie Wrightson, Kyle Baker
Short Story Colorist: Alex Wald

More House of Mystery means more frame story and more short stories. This volume uses its short stories to fill in the backstories of the other residents of the House of Mystery, trapped along with Fig Keele and its mysterious bartender. We find out the history of Ann the pirate, as well as Cressida, whose loves are always fated to be killed by supernatural horrors (or be supernatural horrors), so she has grown callous and cold. And we get a flashback to Abel sneaking into the House after Cain lost it. Huzzah for Goldie!

Meanwhile, the frame story advances as Fig's father appears and Fig discovers the fate of a previous resident of the House. The story feels like it's moving more than in the first volume, which is good.

There's also some largely unrelated short stories, such as the beautifully drawn war between cats and birds. My favorite part, though, is a small inset panel in the middle of the scene where Cressida seduces Poet, showing two insects on the floor, watching a third:
"Oh, Brutus-- see how gracefully he carries that morsel."
"Mark my words, young lady. He will one day be known as a great hero to our peoples!"
It's a perfectly timed, humorous reminder that we're all the heroes of our own stories.

07 February 2014

Review: The New Adventures: Where Angels Fear by Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone

Mass market paperback, 241 pages
Published 1998

Previously read February 2005
Reread January 2014
The New Adventures: Where Angels Fear
by Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone

This New Adventure injects some much-needed urgency and focus into Benny's dig-of-the-week stories, with a dangerous secret of the People becoming loose on Dellah. I like the way that this shakes up our status quo: Bernice, Emile (yay!), and Braxiatel are all put through the wringer, both emotionally and physically. It's neat to see the Grel in a more complicated role than goofy baddies (I particularly loved their creation myth). There's also some neat ideas about faith here: I loved Renée Thalia's Church of the Grey, for example.

I do wish the series had been a little more coherent up to this point, however: James Harker's heel turn would be more interesting if he hadn't been another longtime friend of Benny's we've just met, and Renée's relationship with Brax would be stronger if we'd ever seen her working for him before. Seeds about the faith explosion seem like they could have been better planted ahead of time, too. And it's not so much a problem with this book in and of itself, but Braxiatel is not quite the man he'll be depicted as later on.

05 February 2014

Review: The New American Splendor Anthology by Harvey Pekar

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 1991 (content: 1974-91)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2014
The New American Splendor Anthology
by Harvey Pekar
art by Robert Armstrong, Alison Bechdel, Chester Brown, Kevin Brown, Gregory Budgett, R. Crumb, Gary Dumm with Laura Darnell Dumm, William Fogg, Drew Friedman, Rebecca Huntington, Bill Knapp, Paul Mavrides, Val Mayerik, Alan Moore, Willy Murphy, Spain Rodriguez, Gerry Shamray, Carole Sobocinksi, Frank Stack, J. R. Stats, Colin Upton, Ed Wesolowski, Jim Woodring, Joe Zabel, and Mark Zingarelli

The short story, I think, is Pekar's element-- aside from The Quitter, his long-form work has failed to interest me as much his shorts. The New American Splendor Anthology collects a wide range of his material, from his earliest comics work to his then-latest, though mostly it collects issues of American Splendor that came out after More American Splendor, I think. There's perhaps some stuff here that's not great, but that's okay, 'cause it's always over with right away, and Pekar is spinning you a new yarn in his distinctive voice: buying food at West Side Market, going to comic book signings (including a cameo by Ed Brubaker!), being obsessive about losing something or forgetting something, picking his wife up from the airport, or driving from Washington, D.C., to Cleveland overnight. I empathize with his small obsessions that he tries to clamp under control, and his occasional irrational inflexibility.

This collection also includes writeups of many of Pekar's appearances on Letterman's Late Night. I don't think Pekar is as clever as he thinks he is, but I think he knows that. (I love the one where he tries to get free stuff off the Late Night producer and ends up with a couple crackers.)

Alison Bechdel and Alan Moore draw stories in this one. Seriously: Alan Moore! For some reason Bechdel is one of five artists whose name is left off the cover, and distressingly, there is no credit to the artists on the title page, just Pekar. (Also no good publication data.) By this point, Pekar has gotten good as selecting artists who work well with his style of writing: I imagine that drawing normalcy is more difficult than it looks, and these guys do a great job on the whole, especially Joe Zabel & Gary Dumm and Bill Knapp.

03 February 2014

Review: Terrible Lizard by Deborah Cadbury

Hardcover, 374 pages
Published 2001 (originally 2000)

Borrowed from the library
Read January 2014
Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science
by Deborah Cadbury

This material, despite its inherent interest (Victorian dinosaurs, man!), could easily have been dull in the hands of another writer. Thankfully, Cadbury keeps it very interesting, by turning it into a sort of group biography. This is the birth of paleontology, as told through the life histories of William Buckland, Mary Anning, Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, and more. I particularly liked the story of Mary Anning, from carpenter's daughter to a key figure in paleontology, but always disadvantaged due to her class and gender. She sketches all these characters in with great deftness, and one enjoys learning little things about them as we go from "undergroundology" to the first instance of dinomania. I am so disappointed that I did not know about the Crystal Palace dinosaurs when I went to London!

01 February 2014

Reading Roundup Wrapup: January 2014

Pick of the month: Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science by Deborah Cadbury. This was good, fun popular science/history. I really liked Cadbury's work here, and I'd gladly read more of it at some point.

All books read:
1. The New Machiavelli by H. G. Wells
2. Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women by Carol Dyhouse
3. The Last War: A World Set Free by H. G. Wells
4. Charles Dickens’ Christmas Ghost Stories selected by Peter Haining
5. Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science by Deborah Cadbury
6. The New American Splendor Anthology by Harvey Pekar
7. The New Adventures: Where Angels Fear by Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone
8. House of Mystery: The Beauty of Decay by Matthew Sturges with Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Peter Milligan, Chris Roberson, and Matt Wagner
9. House of Mystery: Under New Management by Matthew Sturges with Bill Willingham, David Justus, Paul Levitz, and Alisa Kwitney
10. House of Mystery: Safe As Houses by Matthew Sturges

All books acquired:
1. The Technic Civilization Saga: Flandry's Legacy by Poul Anderson
2. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
3. Broodhollow: Curious Little Thing by Kris Straub
4. The Fantastic Four Omnibus, Volume 2 by Stan Lee
5. Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus, Volume 2 by John Byrne with Mark Gruenwald and Roger Stern
6. Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimiliation² by Scott & David Tipton with Tony Lee
7. The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 525